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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Pac-10 is suddenly earning A's in D

The conference, long known for wide-open offense, this season has become known for strong defense, and its national reputation has been burnished as a result.

September 30, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Arizona State ranks third nationally this week and USC is sixth, with UCLA checking in at No. 15 and Arizona at No. 25.

Well, of course. The Pacific 10 Conference is always well represented in total offense.

But wait . . . these are NCAA figures for defense.

For offense, the Pac-10 has no team ranked in the top 25. USC, with all those question marks behind center, is No. 29. Oregon is No. 88, one spot ahead of Temple, and UCLA is 108th, 12 spots from dead last.

Defenses have taken over.

"Don't you love it?" Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday on the weekly Pac-10 coaches' conference call.

Well, yeah, maybe, sort of.

But it's just weird.

The conference of Jim Plunkett and John Elway and Troy Aikman and Drew Bledsoe is going through an interesting transition -- or is it evolution?

The pass-happy Pac-10 has become a rugby scrum -- three yards and a cloud of rubber artificial turf pellets. The conference is bigger, tougher and stronger than it's been in years.

Being better on defense has enhanced the conference's national reputation. There's a decent argument going on out there as to whether the Pac-10 has matched, or surpassed, the Southeastern Conference as the nation's best -- if you take out the part about national championships.

The Pac-10 is ranked No. 1 in Jeff Sagarin's USA Today conference ratings. A few facts:

* Louisiana State this year opened the season at Washington, a team that finished 0-12 last year, and won by eight.

* UCLA went to Tennessee and held the Volunteers' offense to 13 points.

* Arizona State traveled to Georgia last weekend and played the Bulldogs paw-to-paw before losing on a last-second field goal.

Arizona State allowed 20 points. The week before, Georgia scored 52 on Arkansas and, two weeks before that, 41 against South Carolina.

"I think it gets you a little more respect," Sun Devils Coach Dennis Erickson said. He added: "SC has always been great on defense. And Oregon State has always been great on defense. Now you're starting to see some other teams: UCLA, Washington . . . Arizona's playing good defense."

In the macho world of football, prolific offense is often equated to weakness -- a mask to disguise inept defenses.

One reason for the Pac-10's improvement on defense is the conference's collective inexperience at quarterback. USC, Stanford and UCLA have started freshmen this season. This weekend, when Washington State plays at Oregon, Jeff Tuel will become the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Cougars since Bledsoe in 1990.

But it has to be more than that. Arizona State and UCLA are among the national leaders this week without having played a conference game.

Arizona Coach Mike Stoops says the league is upgrading its talent: "Getting those players into your program is something that's been hard, collectively, for teams -- to have that type of depth just from the recruiting perspective."

Pac notes

* Let the record reflect: No team that has started 0-2 in conference has ever won the league, which puts Washington State (0-2) out, but you already knew that. California tries to avoid 0-2 at home against USC this week and Oregon State tries to dodge 0-2 at Arizona State. Oregon State is 0-16 against Arizona State in Tempe since 1969 -- when Arizona State was in the Western Athletic Conference.

"We've got some of those ghosts remaining, and this is one of those we'd like to get behind us," Beavers Coach Mike Riley said of the drought.

* What's done is done: Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said his team can't dwell on Saturday's 42-3 loss at Oregon: "They understand SC is coming to town; there's no time to think about yesterday."

* Tough blow: Oregon will be without star cornerback Walter Thurmond III, who is out for the season because of a knee injury. Thurmond took the bad news better than his coach. "I was feeling down for Walt and he kind of picked me up," Ducks Coach Chip Kelly said.

* Drum roll: Which team has the longest winning streak in the conference? UCLA and Oregon are tied at three.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLATimes

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